Each year, high-profile, immediate-impact freshmen have become the norm under UK head coach John Calipari. And more often than not, those players have ended the year in position to take the next steps in their basketball careers and enter the NBA Draft.
Other times, the adjustment to the college game proves to be a bit more difficult, and it often results in an additional year or two in Lexington.
During the 2019-20 season, Kentucky freshman wing Johnny Juzang fell into the latter category.
In 13 games this year, the 6-foot-6 guard played less than ten minutes, including six games with five minutes or fewer and one game with zero minutes (Alabama). He also went scoreless in ten other instances compared to just seven games of more than one made shot.
Just a month into his rollercoaster start to the season, Juzang stressed that he needed to remain patient and not focus too much on the results.
“One of the bigger things is finding comfort in your growth and your process and not harping too much on the results,” Juzang said following Kentucky’s win over UAB in December. “Keeping your faith that it’s going to work out, keep working hard and doing what you do and focus on your process rather than how it’s working out for you at that moment. Your time will come, you just don’t know when that is.”
Despite the missed shots and limited opportunities to start the season, Juzang finally broke through with numerous standout performances to close the year.
The freshman guard managed three consecutive games of multiple made shots against Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas Tech, followed it up with a 13-point performance on 4-4 shooting from three at Tennessee, and closed out the season with a 10-point, 4-6 shooting effort in 33 minutes at Florida.
It wasn’t an easy process, but Juzang held steady on his path and broke through.
“By the end of the year, he had stepped in,” John Calipari said in a Tuesday morning video conference with the media. “The one thing I’ll tell you about Johnny is that he was not afraid, never was that an issue. But, in this game that you play, most of it is conquering yourself first before you worry about conquering anybody else.
“This was all new to him. He had never played at this pace, he had never fought like he had to fight, he had never had to be in a position defensively where you must guard,” Calipari continued. “If they’re going at you every play, you personally, you can’t be in that game. He, as the season went on, each week that went by, he learned and got better and better. I remember us in the Tennessee game when he did what he did. I remember how he played the last game at Florida. But he was a freshman.”
Part of the reason for Juzang’s early struggles? He was simply playing behind a really good crop of guards in Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, and Immanuel Quickley in the rotation.
“I want to say this too, he played behind some pretty good players,” he said. “That doesn’t make him any less of a player. He just played behind some good guys.”
After seeing the 6-foot-6 guard out of Los Angeles, CA make a difference on the floor to close out the season, Calipari wants Juzang to follow in the footsteps of Quickley, Hagans, and EJ Montgomery, among other multi-year players, who have built upon short spurts of success in year one into consistent production.
“Now he knows. The anxiety a freshman has, you can talk to Immanuel [Quickley], or Ashton [Hagans], or EJ [Montgomery], that a sophomore does not have in this program is incredible,” Calipari said of Juzang. “Knowing that each game is the other team’s Super Bowl, that every practice matters, you’re not going through the motions, you don’t take days off. There’s no, “I’m not feeling it today.” Woah, woah, woah, that’s okay, you’re just not going to be a significant player for us.
“You can be one of those guys deep in the bench, but a significant player brings it every day because he’s going to have to. All that stuff that you learn through that freshman year is why guys come back in their sophomore years and you say “Wow.” Big steps up.”
He also used Nick Richards’ story as a key reason to keep a close eye on Juzang, along with other players in similar positions, moving forward.
“And then you have a guy like Nick. I mean, so what? He was on a different path,” Calipari said. “He only started playing when he was 14, and now all of a sudden he became one of the best big men in the country. … What he was able to do, that’s the story of this program. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about growth every year. If after a year, you’re ready mentally and physically, and teams want you, I’m good [if you leave for the NBA]. If it takes you more time, tell me what the issue is. It takes you more time. Guys that have come back, they’ve all helped themselves. That’s important to me.”
On the year, Juzang finished the year averaging 2.9 points (37.7% shooting, 32.6% 3PT, 83.3% FT), 1.9 rebounds, and 0.3 assists in 12.3 minutes per contest.
How much will those numbers grow in year two?